Uzbekistan Part 3 – Bukhara, Samarkand, and Khiva

Bukhara

After a not-too-long train ride we arrived in Bukhara. Bukhara is on the edge of the Kyzylkum desert, and it is extremely hot and dusty. It’s also home to a pretty amazing old city from the Silk Road days. There has been a city on the site of Bukhara for about 3,000 years, but what you see today was mostly built after Genghis Khan destroyed the old city in 1220 AD. We started our tour at the Ark Fortress, where we visited a mosque and several small museums. The structures were alone were interesting, but it sounds like all of the actual treasures like gold, gems, jewelry, and elaborate decorations were ‘borrowed’ by the Soviets and now live at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Guess we’ll see it there.

Outside of the Ark fortress, we saw the famous Mir-i-Arab Madrasah and mosque in the Po-i-Kalyan complex. Words can’t do justice to how pretty the mosque is, and the clarity of the acoustics inside the complex underscores the advanced math and physics that this culture had in the 15th century. We also explored the so-called ‘trading domes’ of the old city, which served as market places during the Silk Road’s heyday. These domes were constructed to capture cross-winds channel the fresh air downward, essentially a ‘natural air-conditioning’. Both Jeff and were shocked at how comfortable these domes felt in the 100+ F weather of Bukhara, and it made me realize that we could use a lot less energy if we just designed buildings well…

After two hot sweaty days of exploring the city I needed a little pampering. I headed to the Hamam Kunjak for a scrub down. This ladies-only hamam was built in the 15th century, and while the massage and scrub was homespun and a little weird (okay a lot weird) the building was fantastic. This place has an exterior courtyard with the most stunning view of the Kalon Minaret (and one of the most ‘legit’ squat toilets I’ve seen). This moment alone was worth the price of admission.

The following day we traveled by car to our overnight yurt camp excursion, and saw some Uzbekistan-specific road trip gems like a goat carcass hanging out of a car trunk. Yummy. We also saw some pretty cool petroglyphs that looked so similar to some of the ones in southern Utah – except for the camels. At the yurt camp we hung out at nearby Aydar lake and enjoyed chatting with some fellow travelers.

Samarkand

After an evening at the yurt camp, we continued our drive to Samarkand, likely the most famous of Uzbekistan’s Silk Road cities. There is so much to see in Samarkand, and honestly it’s a bit of a blur. We saw tons of beautiful madrasahs, the exquisite tomb of Amir Timur, Bibi Khanym Mosque, and the well preserved Shakhi Zinda Necropolis. Basically we saw lots and lots of pretty buildings. Here are some pictures.

I think that my favorite thing in Samarkand was the Observatory of Ulugh Beg, a 15th century astronomer who meticulously catagloged 994 unique stars and improved upon astrological measurements to accurately calculate the length of the sidereal year (nerd time: Ulugh Beg’s year calculations were 365 days 6 hours 10 minutes and 8 seconds, an error of just 58 seconds. Pretty impressive for 1437). The actual structure of the observatory was not preserved, but archeologists have uncovered a huge piece of Ulubeg’s sextant – the instrument used to measure distances between celestial bodies. Today you can see the sextant and a museum dedicated to science in the Arab world. It was a small but fabulous site.

We also visited the Afrosiab archeological park, which comprises the remains of 700 BC settlement. Researchers have uncovered an elaborate fresco wall mural depicting traders from India, China, and Korea bringing offerings of peace to the king of Afrosiab. Our favorite part, however, were these bizarre cone-head sculls in the museum. Despite numerous attempts we never got a satisfactory explanation as to what in the hell these things are, but I’m pretty sure its something concocted by the Russians in the 1930’s to justify phrenology and some kind of racist eugenics-policies against the Uzbeks. Sadly all descriptions were in Russian so I guess the world will never know.

On our last day in Samarkand our guide took us for a lunch of authentic plov – the Uzbek national dish that is basically biryani (though they refuse to admit that). It was excellent and not too ‘meaty’– definitely our best meal of Uzbekistan! We then strolled through the local market, and I think our guide was taken aback by how excited we got over the dried fruit section. We really like dried fruit. Like, a lot. I bought a kilo of dried apricots stuffed with walnuts – just heaven.

Khiva

From Samarkand we took the midnight train to Khiva – which was a real adventure. We cozied into our shabby sleeping cabin with two roomies, who woke up at the crack of dawn for a feast of hotdogs and raw onions. As you can imagine, I loved this. The best part of the sleeper train was the amazing wood-fire water boiler so that we could make our own tea and instant coffee. This thing was such a fire hazard, but I wouldn’t have survived the 12-hour train ride without it.

We disembarked in Khiva to find another fabulous Silk Road city with another set of beautiful buildings. The old city of Khiva is very well preserved, and the residential areas inside the ancient walls are a treat to explore. Inexplicably, one mosque in Khiva still does the call to prayer! I was delighted to hear this, even though it was the shortest and quietest call I’ve ever heard. Our guide gave us some lame explanation about how Khivans drink too much alcohol so the government allows religious encouragement here. Okay, whatever. I’m not going to get an answer for this either.

On our second day in Khiva (and last day in Uzbekistan) we drove out to a remote area called the ’50 Fortresses’ or something like that. There are a bunch of abandoned mud fortresses from various eras and with various functions, and we scrambled around them in the blistering heat. By this point we were beginning to feel like we’d seen every last inch of Uzbekistan. Yep, that’s a big mud fortress, some more farms, and never ending desert. Got it.

On our last night in Uzbekistan we ate our ump-teenth plate of plov with gristle and prepared for our cruelly early (or late?) flight. Uzbekistan was a fabulous journey with some of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen, but after two weeks we were ready to get back to ‘normal’. At 2 am, we hunkered outside the Urgench airport with a horde of Uzbek migrant workers and awaited our flight to Moscow. Bye-bye Uzbekistan!

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